Race Report: Muskoka Chase Triathlon 6/14/2009.
2km Swim, 55km Bike and 15km run.
Weather: Clear and Seasonal 20-24C
I had this event highlighted on my calendar as one of the key events of the season. Having competed in the Muskoka Duathlon the prior 2 years, I knew what to expect in terms of the overall race environment. The town of Huntsville is an ideal location, featuring a beautiful lake region setting, a challenging bike course and incredible support from the entire community; many businesses had signs out welcoming Triathletes. Reviewing results from past years you could see that the world’s best have competed in this race (Simon Whitfield, Craig Alexander, Lisa Bentley). Two years ago this was the 1st Canadian Duathlon that I competed in and I managed a 4th place overall finish in a field of about 90. Last year this was the 1st race that I ever won, toping the list of about 60 Duathletes. It was also at this event that I began to contemplate taking swimming lessons so that I could compete in Triathlons. The energy level before the race is impressive, not to mention seeing 1000 bikes raked for the 1st time. The past 2 years I felt like I was missing out on something when I moved from transition area to the Duathlon starting line. At the DU start there were only a small fraction of the competitors that I had seen in the transition area. The DU group is small enough that one of the organizers (Mitch) could assemble the Duathletes for an informal pre race meeting without having to raise his voice. Further demonstration of the Duathlons second tier status can be felt at the finish line, where it is almost impossible to tell when the winner crosses the finish line. The Triathlon winner gets to hoist the winning banner above their head, ala Lisa Bentley in the Subaru promo materials. The Duathlon winner may not be 100% certain that they even are the winner until they have checked the results page. I long for the glory of hoisting up a banner after being the 1st to cross the finish line.
Skip forwards one year to June 14th, 2009. I have now spent 10 month training in the swimming pool at the University of Toronto so that I could head down to the waterfront along with 90% + of the people competing instead of the Duathlon start. We had decided to make a weekend out of the trip and bring our kids along. We arrived on Saturday afternoon and stayed through Monday. A friend of mine, Larry Bradley did me a huge favor and picked me up at my hotel on race day morning, allowing my wife & kids an extra 2 hours of sleep. We arrived at the transition area 90+ minutes before the start and both secured great racking positions that would help to cut down on our transition times. I was tempted to squeeze my bike into a small gap to get even closer to the end of the rack, but decided against it as there was huge amounts of open space available just a few feet away. Not a minute after I begun preparing my gear, a competitor of mine could not resist the temptation of the gap and slid his bike in close to the end of the rack. I could not help but think that this was a little unsportsmanlike as the other racers who were represented only their prepped gear, had managed to get down to the start area earlier and had earned their prime spots by doing so. The gap fill move should be reserved for the desperate late arriving participant who cannot find a spot anywhere else including overflow. There is no rule about racking that I know of, but do it once and you’ll know what feels right and what feels like you are budding into the queue. The prime spots are always reserved for the Elite/Pro athletes, if you are able to compete at that level than you deserve the spot, if not then get in line.
After being around the sport for 2-years as well as training in the pool with the UofT tri club, I now recognize a lot of familiar faces at the races. As I put on my wet suit and followed the long line of Triathletes and spectators making their way to the start area, I spotted Ming Tsai-Teng from the UofT club and walked with him. Ming an amazingly positive athlete, was carrying his wetsuit and I quickly figured out why; the suits are great for swimming but lousy for walking as they fit snuggly, especially through the groin area and require much adjusting. The lengthy procession to the start was single file for a stretch, due to fencing beside a construction area, which slowed the pace considerably. I was not too worried about time as I was in the 5th wave scheduled to begin at 8:16. I had tried to move into the 1st wave at 8:00 but was unable to as this race was a qualifier for Ironman Canada and all participants had to stay with their age group. When I got to the water entrance it was jammed with people, spectators and participants on the shore spread out all over the place as well as people all along the edge of the lake warming up or just getting used to the water. I was surprised to hear the race announcer send off the 3rd wave. Still eight minutes left to warm up, no need to worry except for the pressure that the wetsuit was placing on my bladder. After dealing with the pressure and getting my wetsuit done up again, I stepped carefully into the water for a quick warm-up and then tried to figure out the best place to position myself.
My strategy going in to the swim was to start out as wide as possible to try and avoid other swimmers. Two weeks prior in my 1st Triathlon (Milton Sprint Tri), I started mid pack and quickly descended into a panic state aided by the hysteria of the start. This time had to be different; I planned on starting out slow away from the pack, finding my rhythm and gradually increasing the pace within my comfort zone. My coaches at U of T had helped with my mental and physical training during the lead up to the race with a variety of drills including a mass start of 30 swimmers doing figure eights around buoy’s for 750m in the Pool. My training also included swimming with my wetsuit on, no goggles, eyes closed, and practice sighting. Despite all of the coaching, I still had spent many hours worrying about how I was going to complete the 2km swim after struggling for 750meters in Milton.
As for my start position it seemed like everyone else had come with the exact same strategy. People were spread out a long way in a perpendicular line to the shore as far out past the starting buoy as the buoy was from the shore. I wasn’t even sure if I was legal to start out as wide as people were spread out. I began to head back towards the shore looking for open room there, but that area was pretty full and definitely not in line with my game plan. One minute left to go and I ended up beside the start buoy right next to Michael Keen (last year’s season age group winner 40-44). I resigned myself to my spot glad that people were not all packed in and glad that I was in the front row. I still planned on following through with the rest of my plan with the gradual start. The horn sounded and I started swimming, breathing regularly keeping calm with an easy pace. Of course my plan went to hell as soon as my strategy clashed with that of the people behind me. This is a race with hundreds of people in it; I clearly need to incorporate that better into my plan in future races. My relatively calm but fragile mental state was rudely disrupted by hands and arms beating into my feet and legs. I tried to ignore the monsters and keep myself in my zone, but the banging only seemed to get worse. Now my breathing began to be impacted and I was heading down the familiar path of hyperventilating, shortness of breath and eventually a full panic state. I decided to try something different this time, I just stopped swimming and treaded water as the thrashing hoards swam by. I then waited for a gap and swam closer to shore away from the main pack into open water. I stayed there, treading water and breathing on the shoulder of the swim highway, waited to catch my breath allowing myself the time I needed to restore the some semblance of the calm state that I started out with. I then began to swim again, not like I was in a race, but like I was in the pool practicing. I started out slow and gradually increased my tempo focusing on lengthening my stroke just like in training. I felt great satisfaction in being able to overcome the stress of the start and was gaining confidence that I would be able to complete the 2km swim. I blocked the thought out of my mind that the race had left me behind and focused on the fundamentals of my stroke. At the 2nd marker the swimmers were converging to make a turn, I did my best to stay as wide as possible, rounded the buoy and headed out wide again into my open water. Every so often I could see swimmers heading across my path out even wider than I was swimming. It is actually a great vantage point to be on the outside because you can clearly see when swimmers have chosen a faulty tangent. About half way through I began to realize that I was actually passing a lot of people, not just people with white swim caps from my wave, but also others from waves in front of me, which was also a confidence builder. In the final 800 meters of the swim I was able to be much more aware of the people around me and adjust both pace and path accordingly. At one point I realized that I was on the right side of a marker and everyone else seemed to be on the left, so I swam back and rounded the buoy on the left side just to make sure I wasn’t breaking any rules. I found out later that for the final portion of the swim up the river you could swim on either side of the markers.
In the final leg of the swim my thought shifted to the bike portion; I did not want a repeat of the last race where the swim seemed to take more out of my bike times than it did with my rivals. I swam right up to the exit and began my run to the transition area. I mentally made the switch from panic avoidance to fierce competitor as I exited the water. Now the people around me were moving too slowly and in my way, I felt like pushing them aside, but waited for a gap and ran by. I was surprised at how rapidly I was breathing and wondered how it would impact my bike effort. I made it through transition and began my assault on the bike course. What an awesome feeling it is to pass people at such a pace, even better when they cheer you on as you go by. I felt strong and in my element. The course was hilly and I had to continually change gears so that I could keep my cadence up and stay on top of the gear I was in. I looked carefully at all of the riders I passed to see even they were in my age group, not many were which was a good indication that my swim had gone well. I passed Mike Keen at around the 20km mark after having given up 3 minutes to him in the swim. Mike surged past me on the bike just minutes later. It marked the 1st time in 3 races that anyone had passed me on the bike. I took this as a signal that it was time for me to refuel. I downed most of my drink as well as a gel pack and then picked up the pace again passing Mike before the midway turn-around. I caught up with Darren Walton (2nd in my age group in Milton) with about 5km to go while he was taking a drink and pressed on hard into the transition area.
I was glad to see no other bikes on my rack when I got in, I must have missed Michael Hay’s bike. As it turns out Mike was a mere 30 seconds ahead of me at that point. Mike ended up stretching out his lead on the run finishing over 4 minutes ahead. I’ll get you next time Mr. Hay! It felt great to slip on my running shoes and head out onto the run course. I stayed within myself getting my legs moving, not pushing my pace knowing that there were 15km’s in front of me. The run starts out in the heart of Huntsville, where the people watching were incredibly supportive. The way people were cheering, it was as if I was heading into the finish, but I was only just at the start of the run. I kept my pace steady and made sure to take in liquid at all of the drink stations. I was mostly by myself and was able to pass a few people along the way. 5km into the run the pleasant sensation of slipping on my shoes had been replaced by an ever growing blister building pain. Competing in Duathlons I always wore socks and did not have a problem with blisters. Running with bare feet in shoes designed for socks can be painful if you haven’t built up the needed calluses. 10km in to go the pain was growing and I was trying to adjust my gate to avoid the sore spots on my feet. I convinced myself that it would be just as painful to walk back bare feet as it was to run, and kept on going. Mental tricks to mask the pain don’t last long, I then switched to more competitive arguments telling myself that this was a 3km, and then 2km, and then 1.6km etc… race. As I crested the hill leading down towards the finish, the pain disappeared temporarily for the final 200 meters, a smile emerged. I crossed the Finish line at a fast gravity aided pace. It was so great to see my wife and kids at the finish and to feel their support.
After the race I headed straight for the ambulance parked behind the finish area to received some treatment for my feet, which needed cleaning and bandaging. This was truly a breakthrough event for me; I was able to complete the swim and decrease my pace from the Milton race from 1:59 to 1:42/100 meters. I feel like I can improve my time more with a bit more experience. My Bike time was 4 minutes faster than last year and I was 5 minutes faster on the run. I ended up in 11th place overall out of 670 and am looking forward to the rest of the season. I have signed myself up for some more swim workouts/lessons throughout the summer with the Toronto Swim Club at the Summerville outdoor pool which is right beside my house. My feet are still sore, I have gone out and purchased a pair of shoes designed for triathlon running. Hopefully this Sunday’s event in Guelph won’t make the blisters much worse than they already are.